Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lunar Electric Rover.

    Next Generation Rover For Lunar Exploration Driving New Tech Here On Earth

    In the year 2020, NASA will be back on the moon. This time NASA will explore thousands of miles of the moon’s surface with individual missions lasting six months or longer. Just as we did during the Apollo program, NASA will be developing new concepts and technologies – concepts and technologies that will also benefit life on Earth.

    Desert RATS test

    During the 2008 Desert RATS tests at Black Point Lava Flow in Arizona, engineers, geologists and astronauts came together to test NASA's new NASA's Lunar Electric Rover. Image Credit: Regan Geeseman

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    One concept that is in NASA’s current plans is a Lunar Electric Rover. This small pressurized rover is about the size of a pickup truck (with 12 wheels) and can house two astronauts for up to 14 days with sleeping and sanitary facilities. It is designed to require little or no maintenance, be able to travel thousands of miles climbing over rocks and up 40 degree slopes during its ten year life exploring the harsh surface of the moon. The rover frame was developed in conjunction with an off-road race truck team and was field tested in the desert Southwest with 140 km of driving on rough lava.

    The view from cockpit and the ability to "kneel" make it easy for astronauts to get close to objects they want to examine without having to leave the cabin. Its wheels can move sideways in a "crabbing" motion, one of many features that make it skilled at scrambling over rough terrain. The crab style steering allows the vehicle to turn on a dime with a zero turning radius and drive in any combination of forward and sideways.

    Astronauts can work in shirtsleeves in the safety of the rover's cabin, and when they need to, or want to for exploration missions, they can quickly enter and exit their spacesuits through suitports. These suitports on the rover's aft bulkhead keep the astronauts' suits outside, allowing a spacewalk to start in ten minutes and keeping moon dust out of the cabin. By removing the cabin, the chassis can be used to carry payloads or allows astronauts to drive it in spacesuits. This capability also affords reusability and redundancy for long term, robust operations.

    Some of the new technologies to be developed include new batteries, new fuel cells, advanced regenerative brakes, and new tire technologies. These are the same technologies that are required for electric vehicles such as cars, tractors, and heavy equipment that the U.S. needs to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels. The prototype rover is a plug-in electric vehicle with a cutting edge, Lithium-ion battery with a 125 W-hr/Kg specific energy (including cells, packaging and battery management electronics). To meet NASA's requirements, the flight rover will need a 200 W-hr/Kg battery, so a big technology development push is underway. It will need the same reliability, energy storage and recharge capability that will be required for an Earth-based electric sedan that can travel 500 miles before needing to be recharged.

    To begin the development of the Lunar Electric Rover, an initial concept was built and began testing in October 2008. This concept vehicle was invited to participate in the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade. This Lunar Electric Rover was built using today’s most advanced technologies. As more advanced electric vehicle technologies are developed, they will be incorporated into the design.

    The development of these more advanced technologies will not be easy, so NASA has its best engineers and scientists working with the U.S. auto and heavy equipment industries, universities, other government agencies and international partners to make the program succeed. Our success will have a great impact on developing highly reliable and efficient electric cars and trucks for Earth. For each advancement NASA makes in the Lunar Electric Rover's capabilities, the world will be one step (and 12 wheels) closer to returning to the moon and one step closer to having highly reliable and efficient electric vehicles on Earth.

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